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UC Merced Biologist Seeks Answers About Miscarriage and Infection

December 1, 2004

MERCED — As many as one-third of all human pregnancies are said to end in miscarriage, and it's possible that 50 percent of those miscarriages occur because of inflammation due to infection. David Ojcius, a professor in the School of Natural Sciences at UC Merced, is planning a project to study the processes that cause miscarriages in mothers who are infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

Ojcius recently received a grant of $207,500 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to study how the body's immune response to infections may cause miscarriage.

“Professor Ojcius' work is important to the San Joaquin Valley because of high rates of sexually transmitted disease and teenage pregnancy,” said UC Merced's Vice Chancellor for Research, Keith Alley. “His research should ultimately contribute to better health for women in our region and throughout the world.”

Ojcius will perform the study with help from a research assistant whose salary will be funded by the grant. They will focus on Chlamydia trachomatis infection because that pathogen is clearly known to cause miscarriage. Although it is difficult to study miscarriages in humans, previous studies have indicated that pregnancies in mice infected with chlamydia almost always end too soon. Studies of fetuses lost in those miscarriages indicate that the fetuses were not infected with the pathogen. That means that inflammation due to infection in the mother's reproductive tract was the actual cause of pregnancy loss.

“Professor Ojcius' study to address the role of infection in miscarriage has broad implications for human health,” said Maria Pallavicini, Dean of Natural Sciences at UC Merced, in response to news of the grant. “Funding from NIH and NIAID is a prestige award, reflecting the outstanding caliber of research carried out at UC Merced.”

Ojcius has many years of experience studying chlamydia, including 12 years at the Pasteur Institute in France. This grant is his first since leaving that institution, where he notes that funding worked very differently - all lab employees were civil servants, so grants were smaller and shorter-term.

“It is much easier to plan long-term research projects here in the United States,” Ojcius said. He arrived at UC Merced in July 2004 as a member of the founding faculty, a move that was a sort of homecoming, as he grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and graduated from Turlock High School.

The study funded by the new grant will focus on the actual mechanisms by which chlamydia causes inflammation, damages tissue and leads to pregnancy loss. It will be carried out on mice, which is the standard way to proceed in this field of research. Ojcius plans to consider two separate components of the immune system: the adaptive immune system and the innate immune system. Adaptive immunity recognizes antigens such as bacteria or viruses and fights them with specialized antibodies. This is the system by which many humans become immune to chickenpox, for example, after having the illness. Innate immunity, on the other hand, provides a much faster response, using more general immune-system cells to attack and eliminate any antigens foreign to the body. When the body uses this system, surrounding tissues are often inflamed and damaged. For instance, when a cut becomes infected and inflamed, the innate immune system is at work.

“We tend to assume that miscarriages would be caused by 'immune rejection' of the fetus by the mother due to antibody problems, but there's no convincing evidence of that,” Ojcius explained. “The mother's adaptive immune system actually recognizes the fetus and tolerates it.”

That's another reason Ojcius thinks it must be the innate immune system - the inflammation of the body trying to fight off infection - causing miscarriages. This project will test that theory.

In addition to the salary of the research assistant, the grant will cover purchase of equipment and supplies necessary to complete the study, Ojcius said.

UC Merced, the 10th campus of the University of California system and the first major research university to be built in the United States during the 21st century, is scheduled to open in fall 2005 with 1,000 students, ultimately growing to a student population of 25,000. A select group of graduate students began work at UC Merced in August 2004. The university has a special mission to serve the educational needs of San Joaquin Valley residents, and is already serving area students through partnerships with community colleges, outreach programs and UC summer session courses offered in Fresno, Bakersfield and Atwater. UC Merced currently employs more than 250 educators and other professionals who are working to develop the physical and academic infrastructure of the campus.